Monday, May 25, 2009

On DVD: "Fanboys"

Fanboys begins with an interesting idea and fills it up with (mostly) charming actors and welcome cameos. Trouble is, it just ain’t funny enough. When it limped into a handful of theatres last February, it was coming off a multi-year sturm und drang of post-production that was more dramatic than anything that made it to the screen. New directors and extra talent were trucked in; scenes were tossed out and reworked by the handful. It’s hard to know what director Kyle Newman’s film looked like before its cuisinart of reworkings, but in its current form, it is damp with the flop sweat of too many extra hands.

The time is 1998, a year before the long-awaited Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. The titular characters are Linus (Chris Marquette), Hutch (Dan Fogler), and Windows (Jay Baruchel), lifelong friends who live and breathe everything Star Wars. They’re also stuck in a perpetual adolescence; they work in a comic book store, still live at home, and seem oblivious to the fairer sex—even the foxy geek girl (Kristen Bell) who works with them. Their buddy Eric (Sam Huntington) has grown up, it seems; he works at his father’s used car lot and is about to take over for the old man. But an awkward reunion at a Halloween party stirs up these old friendships, and they devise a plan to travel from their home of Ohio to Skywalker Ranch near San Francisco, where they will break in to Lucas’ home base and get an early peek at the prequel.

Oh, and Linus has cancer. His sickness was one of the film’s sticking points; executive producer Harvey Weinstein reportedly wanted the cancer subplot excised and various versions were tested with and without it, resulting in flame wars and online petitions and so on. On paper, I can see why it was in, and why director Newman fought so hard for it; in theory, it gives the film a ticking clock (Linus may not live to see the movie when it’s actually released). But after viewing the film, I gotta say that Harvey Scissorhands may have been on to something. The cancer plot is tone-deaf to the wacky tone of the rest of the film, an ill-advised attempt to add gravitas to a lightweight story that can’t support it. It pretty much stops the movie cold whenever it comes up, and Eric’s particular (and particularly vague) form of the disease is that elusive “movie cancer” that only exhibits symptoms when it’s convenient for the narrative.

Not that there’s any particular comic momentum for the serious moments to spoil; the film’s rough-and-tumble assembly is most evident in its lack of forward motion. It’s strictly a minute-to-minute affair, clearly the handiwork of script doctors and outsourced talent who were asked to punch up the movie’s laugh lines with no real concern for the big picture—and even there they failed. There are funny lines here and there, but the throwaway gags (like a coffee shop called Java the Hut) are frequently more amusing than the big comic set pieces. Much of the picture is assembled from the tired spare parts of countless road trip movies, like the encounter with a gang of rough bar bikers who turn out to be (wait for it) GAY (can you imagine such a thing?), or the scene where they get high around a campfire. Sure, the film’s non-stop Star Wars references and inside jokes can get a little tiresome, but they’re better than the cliché parade that it reverts to in its lesser moments (we even get a slow-mo bad-ass walk with music at one point, as if there’s anyone on earth who’s not tired of that move).

In the leading roles, Marquette and Huntington are damn near indistinguishable in their bland vanilla looks and mannerisms, and their conflict is tiresome, right up to the tender ending scene where they tell us what the story was about (“This was never about the movie…”). As Hutch, the loathsome Dan Fogler (whose “filmmaking” debut Hysterical Psycho was the lowlight of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival) does his best impression of Jack Black in High Fidelity. Only Baruchel (Undeclared) manages to work up much of a character. And while it’s always a pleasure to see Kristen Bell work, but she’s punching way under her weight class with this role. That said, she still manages to charm, and her reappearance at the halfway point gives the picture a much-needed jolt of life.

The film does keep some surface interest going by trotting out a non-stop parade of cameos. William Shatner gets a pretty good scene, though Star Wars alumni Billy Dee Williams and Carrie Fisher get about three lines each (they’re utilized for their mere existence, rather than for any particular end). The bulk of the guest shots are from various figures of the modern (mostly Apatow-based) comedy scene; some of them amuse, but by the end, it starts to take on a Cannonball Run air (“Hey, it’s Craig Robinson. Hey, it’s Danny McBride”)—we smile in anticipation at the appearance of someone who has made us laugh before, though they rarely do so here. It’s not enough to get funny people, you have to give them something funny to do. Seth Rogen plays two roles, and one of them (a nearly unrecognizable bit as a Star Trek fanatic) looks like it’s building to a comic high point, only to culminate in a clumsy, poorly staged fight scene that’s hardly a payoff. Scene like this don’t go anywhere; they fumble to their foregone conclusions lethargically. I’m not sure which scenes were in Newman’s original cut and which were in the reshoots, lensed by talentless Steven Brill (Without A Paddle, Little Nicky), but there’s not much here for either man to be proud of.

It’s not that there’s nothing worth seeing in Fanboys; there’s plenty of talented people involved, and scattered laughs throughout. But the whole thing has the air of an opportunity missed, and then desperately attempted to recapture. There’s one entire sequence that plays—the final scene, of our heroes and their brethren camped out in those lines outside the theaters before the real opening. In that scene, the filmmakers finally capture the unfettered anticipation among movie geeks in that particular pop culture moment (and they get Bell to wear the Leia gold bikini, which is no small accomplishment), and cap it off with a decent closing line (I mean, it’s no “Nobody’s perfect!”, but still…). There, and in other isolated moments, Fanboys is charming, goofy fun. But it stumbles too often to work up a full head of steam.

Fanboys is a movie I wanted to like far more than I was able to; it’s just a clunky mess, full of too many strained scenes where funny people stand around waiting for laughs that don’t come. The cult of movie geekdom can be fertile ground for comic satire (as anyone who has seen Trekkies can attest), but Fanboys never finds a real comic attitude or voice; it doesn’t really admire its heroes, but it doesn’t bother to satirize them, either. Instead, it marches them through a tired road trip construct and some desperate comic situations and hopes for the best. Unfortunately, that’s not quite good enough.

"Fanboys" is currently available on DVD.

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